Sometimes we think of decomposition as boring, gross, or both. But that doesn’t have to be the case!
Decomposition is an important part of the process of change in our natural world. Seeing and talking about these processes and patterns is a great way to connect kids with nature in a fun, simple, and hands-on way. Below, you’ll find a great activity called The Magic of Compost, which will show you how to make a little compost in a big jar! Then, in Decomposition Helpers, we’ll meet some animals that help with decomposition, and invite you to explore and find your own. Finally, in You Can Be a Helper Too, learn how to use an old jack-o’-lantern to grow a plant of your own.
The Magic of Compost
Decomposition is full of magic and mystery! Watching fall leaves, an apple core, or an old jack-o’-lantern seem to magically dissolve and transform from scrap to soil can spark wonder and curiosity about nature. However, it’s not always easy to see decomposition in action! That’s why a compost jar, which brings the process of decomposition to life before our eyes, is such a wonderful project. Plus, it’s fun, simple, and easy to do!
- Large clear container (such as a ½ gallon mason jar)
- 2-4 cups soil
- 1-3 cups water
- 2 cups of “browns” like a paper grocery bag, toilet paper or paper towel tube, cardboard, grass clippings, or dry leaves
- 1 cup “greens” e.g., vegetable or fruit scraps (No animal products like meat, eggs, or dairy. This stuff is too heavy for our small composter to break down in a safe and not-gross way.)
- Rubber band
- A scrap of thin/breathable fabric like cheesecloth, a cotton handkerchief, a piece of an old t-shirt, or similar
Optional extras for exploring:
- Magnifying glass
- Notebook or scratch paper and something to write with
- Prepare your “browns” by tearing them into smallish pieces (Start with pieces the sizes of a matchbook. Don’t stress, littler learners can just tear, while older kids may want to experiment with different sizes. More on this below!)
- Prepare your “greens” by breaking or chopping veggies them into small-ish pieces, if needed.
- Fill the jar. Add most of the soil first, then the greens and browns, and then the rest of the soil.
- Now, a bit of water. How much varies based on how wet your food and soil are to start with. You want just enough to make everything damp, not soaking.
- Mix it up! Either stir it all with a big wooden spoon. If you have a sturdy lid, shake it – shake it, shake it like you are not supposed to shake a polaroid picture.
- For the lid, we want to let a little air pass through, not an airtight seal. The microbes and fungi breaking down your food waste breathe oxygen just like us! Place a square of fabric on the top, and wrap a rubber band around to hold it in place.
- Set your jar on the kitchen counter. If you want it outside, find a spot that’s pretty shady and elevated enough to keep it from any curious critters!
- Maintenance: Once or twice a week, stir/mix the jar and add a little bit of water to keep things moist/damp. Your greens should break down in 2-4 weeks, depending on the temperature and what kind of food it was.
- After a month or so, when it’s done, the finished product should look smooth and even textured, and is perfectly ready to be used in a garden or houseplant (or just sprinkle in a plant-rich place somewhere nearby).
Ways to Dig Deeper
The above project works great all on its own. If you want to explore some more, here are a few ideas of fun things to try in the name of SCIENCE!
Keep a chart or daily log of what you notice. Questions to explore:
- What does it look like?
- Does the weight change?
- Does the temperature change each day?
- Why might these changes be suggesting?
Set up an experiment with two different jars, with one (or more) variables:
- Try putting large food scraps in one jar and small scraps in another. How do they compare?
- What might happen if we put in other kinds of materials, like plastic or foil?
- What if one jar is kept warmer and one jar is kept colder?
What’s Great About A Compost Jar
Composting is a hands-on way for kids to interact with natural systems. Literally getting their hands dirty and allowing them to observe the process of change first-hand, through several senses. It also gives kids a role in this natural process, improving a sense of agency, and even boosting self-esteem.
On a more abstract level, this type of project can deepen a child’s cognitive understanding of natural cycles and processes – including the concept that growth and decay are interrelated parts of transformation and change. It also can help to stimulate curiosity and inquiry, and demystifies science by encouraging further exploration through hands-on experimentation!
The Break Down on Compost
Decomposition is when organic material (organic meaning containing carbon) breaks down from big pieces into tiny/microscopic pieces that can be used to help other life grow.
Without human involvement, in the circle of life sense, things die and decay. The break down provides nutrients for new life to grow, from fallen leaves in the woods to animals in the savannah, all on their own. Compost is when humans get involved in the decomposition process to help speed it along and make it more predictable.
Composting is a “living process,” meaning the work is done by organisms like (good!) bacteria, microbes, and fungi. That stuff, being alive, needs water, air and food to survive. The “food” has to be a balanced diet including their two favorites, carbon and nitrogen. All composting, even huge industrial and municipal composting operations, use the word “brown” for the carbon-rich food and “green” for the nitrogen-rich food, just like we did in our jar!
To learn more about composting from folks in our community, check out LA Compost.
In the previous activity, we harnessed the power of very tiny organisms to see how nature breaks stuff down. But those little friends aren’t the only ones who help with decomposition! Animals like worms and arthropods are a key part of breaking down organic material too.
The Arthropods Who Live at Kidspace
Here at Kidspace, we have a living collection of Animal Ambassadors, including reptiles, amphibians, and (drumroll, please…) arthropods! Arthropods are a diverse group of critters; crustaceans, insects, spiders, and centipedes are all arthropods. All of them have a few key things in common, including hard shell-like exoskeletons, a segmented 3-part body, and (key for us) a DIGESTIVE SYSTEM. The digestive system is what helps arthropods decompose plant matter. Animals help decompose things by eating them and breaking them down into smaller elements.
In our living collection, we have two kinds of arthropods that are especially good at decomposing: Desert Millipedes and Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches!
You can see here that they are helping us break down some pumpkins this month!
Can you think of other animals that might help with decomposing? Next time you are on a walk or in your yard, encourage your kids to look under bushes, leaves, in the grass, and under mulch to see if you can spot decomposer helpers like pills bugs, sow bugs, earthworms, and greenhouse millipedes. All these animals are decomposer helpers!
Searching for bugs around your home may seem simple, but this fosters a connection to place, connecting kids to their local environment, and strengthening a sense of belonging to their natural community.
Time spent outdoors doesn’t need to be complicated to offer huge physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits to the child in your life, including naturally relieving stress and improving academic performance. Allowing a kid to explore independently promotes confidence and creates opportunities to share discoveries with a trusted adult. AND it’s super fun to look for things!
Bonus, if you do this in conjunction with something like the compost jar project (above) you’re also supporting the idea that nature is something that is both outdoors and indoors.
Be a Decomposition Helper Too!
Phew, what a whirlwind tour of decomposition! We’ve learned about it, watched it in action, and even met other animals that are decomposition helpers. Now, let’s find out how we can be decomposition helpers too!
At the end of the Halloween season, grab that jack-o’-lantern. You know, that one that’s been on porch just a touch too long and isn’t looking so great anymore. Help transition it to new life by using it to plant flowers and seeds in your garden. The decomposing pumpkin enriches the soil for our plants and the experience enriches our kid’s connection with seeing life as a cycle of growth and decay.
- A wilting rotting jack-o’-lantern
- A planter pot that the jack-o-lantern can be buried in OR a place in your garden that suits the plant you hope to grow.
- A plant or flower that fits inside the jack-o-lantern OR any fall/winter friendly seeds that you hope to grow
- Potting soil
- Watering can
- Optional: garden gloves
- Place potting soil in the bottom of your planter pot (or dig a hole) where you plan to place your jack-o’-lantern.
- Place your pumpkin inside the pot/hole and fill the space around it with soil.
- Use the potting soil to fill your jack-o’-lantern, plant your flower or seeds!
- Check to make sure you have covered the entire pumpkin under with soil. This will help make the decomposition process less attractive to local creatures.
If your planter pot is big enough, you may choose to add more flowers or plants around the sides!
- Water your newly planted flowers or plants.
We are a fan of this project for lots of reasons. It helps free up space in our trash cans, but more importantly it gives children an active role in change. This helps to improve their sense of agency and self-efficacy to cope with change, while meaningfully connecting them with nature.
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